Blog Carnival: Religion & Super-Heroes

For the past 6 months I’ve been playing in a monthly Mutants & Masterminds game run b a friend in which religion has played a major role in the developing story:  The campaign is set in the modern day US in which over the last decade individuals have begun demonstrating super powers. The interesting twist the GM has put on things is that some of the supers have concluded that their powers are a gift from God and they need to “enlighten” the masses.  For example, there is a super-powered group calling themselves “The Rapture” who attack anyone who doesn’t embrace their fundamental religious views. In another twist on the role of religion, another inventor discovered a way to imbue his robotic creations with sentience by summoning souls from Hell.  Our group was caught in the middle of all the action when the inventor hired us to track down his first prototype robot who has “gone off the reservation” and decided he’s going to be the next savior for the planet by opening a gateway to Hell.  Of course the GM didn’t reveal all this to us at the beginning: Instead the inventor’s creations were portrayed as battle suits piloted by humans, and we were supposed to be hunting down a mentally unstable pilot who stole one of the suits.

The results have lead to some really interesting moral conundrums (e.g., the Rapture are terrorists in the eyes of some and heroes in the eyes of others), difficult choices (e.g., our team’s employer was summoning demons to replace his need for AI), and conflicted allies (e.g., one of our team members turned out to be a demon-souled robot).  Needless to say, all this lead to some pretty interesting sessions.

Prior to this game I never really thought about using religion as the focal point of a super-hero game. I’ve always hated Marvel’s use of the various mythological deities as super-heroes (e.g., Thor & Hercules), because in my opinion it was goofy.  However, this is something very different since it really fits right into our own world and thus brings a degree of verisimilitude to a genre that often has a very simplistic morality (i.e., everything is black & white) or just down right unrealistic. Thus, this experience has really opened my eyes to the possibility of using religion in RPG genres and settings where I never thought they’d work.

Another contribution to this month’s Blog Carnival.

Gods, who needs them?

One of the things I’ve often struggled with in my fantasy games is the role the gods play in the world.  In particular, what I don’t like is the idea of a world with a large pantheon (or even pantheons if each race gets their own) – the notion that there are potentially hundreds of deities, each with their own domain,  roaming various planes is just goofy.  In addition, there are literally dozens of reasons why I find the idea of large pantheons untenable.  Among the most prominent are:

  • Player overload – most players find it really hard to learn all the names of the gods, let alone their domains. As a result the gods turn into nothing more than window dressing – a name tossed out when you visit a temple or invoked when they face the “evil” cleric.  Ask yourself how often you’ve had any of your players besides someone playing a religious character type (e.g., priest, paladin, cleric, etc) actually invoke the name of a god or even mention one in the course of play. In fact, my experience is that even most clerics don’t use their deity or faith in more than a superficial manner.  This is related to the issue of player buy-in, on which Critical Hits has a recent article that discusses other related issues.
  • In most cases it makes little sense for a world’s inhabitant to worship a single god whose domain is so tightly limited:  Why in the world would a farmer only worship the goddess of agriculture when his prosperity depends on a lot more than just whether his plants grow (e.g., weather, fertility of his animals, prices for his goods, etc).  It’s not really feasible to have a dozen or more temples or shrines in a single village.  The solution, of course, is to have similar gods gathered into some sort of unified church but in many ways that’s supporting what I’m about to suggest….
  • Too many evil sects and religions dilute the impact of a religious archenemy – it’s hard to be too impressed with defeating the head priest of Bhaal when you know that he’s just one of a dozen evil gods.

However, for me personally, the most important reason why I don’t like large pantheons is that they don’t lend themselves to the “shades of gray” kind of religious questions that I like – to me it’s much more interesting when a particular religion can be perceived as both good or evil, depending on one’s perspective.  In other words, rather than building the identifies of gods upon the idea of  “good” or “evil,” they are based on philosophies or core beliefs.  As a result, the world’s inhabitants interpret a religion’s motives and intentions based on the power and actions of the clerics, as well as their own beliefs and experiences. This works especially well when dealing with a few monotheistic religions, representing omnipotent deities, competing against one another.  One only has to look as far as our own history (e.g., the Crusades, the Inquisition, modern day Saudi Arabia, etc.) to see how a particular religion can be seen as savior or destroyer, depending on one’s perspective, or even which end of the sword one stands. Thus, a cleric in this type of setting might be revered in one village and feared or even despised in the next town down the road.  Similarly, a cathedral might be run by a completely incompetent bureaucrat or even a priest up to absolutely no good.

Having monotheistic religions (I say religions because competition is good, especially when it comes to creating conflict), particularly one which relies in faith in the divine rather than the god taking an active, hands-on role,  creates a naturally antagonistic relationship ripe with story hooks.  For example, throwing out the idea that a religion has to be pigeon-holed into a particular alignment, you suddenly open up the possibility of intrigue, deception, or outright treachery occurring even in the most sacred and hallowed institutions. A good example of this sort of dichotomy is illustrated in Ken Follett’s novelThe Pillars of the Earth which follows all of the physical, economic, and political maneuvering involved in building a cathedral in 12th century England. One could easily adapt this sort of story for use in any fantasy campaign.  Similarly, it’s possible that a cleric might find that his or her superior is a conniving, narcissistic sociopath who is manipulating his underlings towards his own selfish ends.  That to me is much more interesting since it opens up tons of possibilities in terms of character development, story lines, and plot hooks.

I have used this approach when running The Witchfire Trilogy to good effect, turning one of the chief allies of the PCs in to the mastermind behind the entire plot that drives the adventure: The idea of being double-crossed by a person they respected and looked up to was a far more powerful experience for the players than simply discovering some “bad wizard” was behind the whole thing.

So, the next time you’re developing a setting for a campaign (or even using a published one like Eberron), consider dumping all those gods and instead consolidating the divine powers into a few, well-organized, global faiths. The result can lead to some very interesting and inspiring possibilities.

Another contribution to this month’s Blog Carnival.